Tony Fisher

Tony Fisher

In July 2016 there was an attempted coup in Turkey. That much is well known. What is not quite so well understood is the aftermath. The Turkish government succeeded in overcoming the coup attempt rapidly. That is only the first part of the story. Five days later a state of emergency was declared across Turkey which has been continuously in force ever since.

Within days, thousands of military personnel, police officers, journalists, civil servants and politicians were arrested and imprisoned. Thousands of judges and prosecutors were dismissed and jailed. Emergency decrees have closed schools, universities, law firms, many NGOs and indeed much of civil society. Over 140,000 public sector employees have now been purged. The legal profession has also suffered persecution. Hundreds of lawyers have been arrested and detained.

Even the head of Amnesty International in Turkey lies in prison, re-arrested recently after having been released on one set of charges. By last November, 555 lawyers had been jailed according to statistics collated by the Council of Bars and Law Societies in Europe. Many more have been arrested since. Little is left of a civil and criminal justice system which once provided effective remedies and some sort of justice for individuals.

The Constitutional Court, Turkey’s highest court, has been ineffective in addressing the gross violations of individual rights and freedoms that have taken place. It decided that it had no jurisdiction to challenge actions taken under emergency decrees. It now sits on tens of thousands of cases waiting to be heard. Of over 60,000 cases awaiting decisions, more than 40,000 were submitted after the Turkish government declared emergency rule.

Ankara's answer was to set up a seven person commission (for the most part appointed by the Turkish government) to review cases of employees dismissed by government decrees. It also now has a backlog of tens of thousands of cases.

Not surprisingly, desperate people are turning elsewhere in search of a remedy. Turkish citizens filed more than 90,200 petitions to the European Court of Human Rights in 2017, but over 30,000 of them were dismissed summarily by the court as being 'manifestly ill-founded' as alleged domestic remedies had not been exhausted. Although some cases involving politicians and journalists have now been referred to the Turkish government, many commentators are bemoaning the failure of the court to address this problem.

Where will it end and what can the court do? That is something that will be debated on Monday (5 March) in Berlin, at a joint event organised by the Law Society, the German Bar Association and other international lawyers groups. 

The former Turkish judge at the European Court of Human Rights is on a panel of five speakers addressing the questions of whether that court can now in any way be said to be providing an effective remedy to the citizens of Turkey and if not what approach should it adopt.

Important questions in a world where fundamental rights and freedoms are being challenged in many Council of Europe states more than they have been for decades.

Tony Fisher is senior partner at Fisher Jones Greenwood LLP and chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Law Society of England and Wales.